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Monday, September 4, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Ruben Navarrette Jr. / Syndicated columnist

Jobs Americans won't do, even on Labor Day

Syndicated Columnist

SAN DIEGO — Labor Day is a good time to dig into a phrase that has been bandied about in the immigration debate: "jobs that Americans won't do." As in, immigrants — legal and illegal — are working at jobs that Americans won't do.

Immigration restrictionists get their feelings hurt whenever someone implies that, over the generations, Americans have lost their appetite for physical labor.

I can't believe there is even an argument. Of course, we Americans have lost our taste for such work and all that comes with it — sunburn, calloused hands, back pain, sweat-soaked shirts and all the rest.

We're taught that if we get an education, we'll get a "good job" in a climate-controlled office. We'll earn more money than our parents dreamed of, and spend fewer hours doing it. So why be defensive when someone accuses us of getting soft? We worked hard to get soft.

That lesson was lost on one reader — a self-identified white male — who said that he had gotten into an argument with Mexican laborers on a crew he was supervising. It started when one of the workers spouted off: "White people are lazy. White people don't know how to work." The supervisor took offense. Rather than argue the point, he insisted to the workers that it was just as important to work with your head as with your arms and back.

We should just accept that the immigration debate is also a referendum on the work ethic of Americans and their oft-pampered children.

Let's not forget that the jobs done by illegal immigrants often amount to young men's work. When a Mexican immigrant died of heat exhaustion picking bell peppers in Central California last summer, what surprised me was that the man was 42. In those fields, he must have seemed like an old man to the 20-year-olds working alongside him.

So the debate isn't about whether Americans used to do these jobs once upon a time, or whether your grandfather didn't do this kind of work 40 or 50 years ago from sunup to sundown. There is no argument there: Grandpa was a standup guy. The real debate is about your kids and why they're not doing these jobs, and would never do these jobs, not at any wage.

Lou Dobbs doesn't get it. On his CNN show, he talks wistfully about how there used to be an appreciation for work in this country — a love of work for work's sake.

Sure, Lou. The operative phrase being "used to be." It's simply no longer the case, not for many young people under the age of 40. If you pine away for the days when work was treated as sacred, look no further than immigrants — that's how they see it.

I'm in a different club. If you're looking for someone to pick peaches, dig ditches or pick the meat out of crab shells, well, you've got the wrong Mexican. I don't have the skill set or the work ethic that my grandfathers had.

For many of us who are two or three generations removed from immigrants, educated, with lofty goals and soft hands, it is not just hard labor we won't do. I know lots of folks in their teens and 20s who won't even dish fast food because they consider the job beneath them. What would their friends say?

People will say that this is because wages aren't high enough, as if there's a magic number that would pull young people away from their video games and computer screens.

A few months ago, while appearing on a radio show in Louisville, Ky., I tested the theory with a hypothetical. I blurted out that I'd offer a summer job on a horse farm — cleaning out stalls and other delightful tasks — to any young person who called into the station. I'd pay $200 per day, I said, which is a lot more than those jobs really pay.

When a call came in, I thought my experiment failed. Then the producer informed me that the call was from a mother who was asking for the job on behalf of her son.

That doesn't count. But it does illustrate my point. It's jobs that Americans won't do — not jobs that Americans won't do unless they're secured by mommy.

Ruben Navarrette's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

2006, The San Diego Union-Tribune